Walking to work sometimes—my office is in Times Square—I think idly to myself about the benefits of a post-apocalyptic world. Fewer people. More space. The environment would probably get better. With any luck, Texas would be wiped off the map entirely. “A plague hits, and half of us survive,” I think to myself as I push past Elmos and Darth Vaders lined up like Wal-Mart greeters on 40th Street. “Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.”
For secret misanthropes like myself, Stephen King’s The Stand is as fascinating as it is horrifying. Felled by a government-created (and accidentally released) superflu known as Captain Trips, the U.S. (and theoretically global) population is eviscerated—only about 1 in 10 people prove immune. Those that survive find themselves cast adrift in a world absent their loved ones, and are scared by the arrival of vivid mass dreams, dreams of a faceless man and a kindly old woman, the former evil, the latter virtuous, the former Satanic, the latter Godly. Propelled by their visions, the country’s remaining residents gather together in two separate locations—Boulder, Colorado for the good’uns, and Las Vegas, natch, for the bad—where they begin to negotiate the formation of new societies, and to prepare for a final showdown between good and evil.
The Stand tends to provoke strong reactions in its readers—it’s King’s Best Book, or his worst, depending on who you talk to. At 1,400+ pages, it’s also one of his longest, and much energy is expended inviting readers into this particular post-apocalyptic United States, and introducing them to the handful of pivotal characters in the ultimate G vs. E Battle Royale. King, never one for brevity, in The Stand takes his penchant for exposition to whole new levels—I actually had to keep an ongoing Post-It of character names just to make sure I didn’t miss anyone.
For me, The Stand is King’s best only in the sense that it is Stephen King; it’s a comprehensive primer on all the author’s favorite character archetypes, supernatural themes and ruminations on the state of humanity. It’s also one large puzzle piece in the interconnected web of King novels. The aforementioned faceless man—also known as Randall Flagg—appears in King’s Dark Tower series, as does the idea of “ka,” one’s soul. Characters struggle with premonitions that hew very closely to the infamous “shining,” and their universal fight to maintain civility in a chaotic world appears in pretty much every King novel ever. Indeed, if King’s world were a house, The Stand would be the front door. (To belabor the analogy, the Dark Tower books are King’s cluttered but treasure-filled attic. Also, here is a mind-blowing flow chart documenting all the connections between King’s books.)
There are parts of The Stand that (ahem) truly stand out, including the novel’s nail-biting last 200 pages. Equally fascinating to me were the chapters devoted to the formation of a new society in Colorado. Despite the more potent threat of Randall Flagg, the fledgling Boulder society never feels more vulnerable than when its run-of-the-mill residents are forced to agree on laws, to establish order and reach consensus. Indeed, where so many post-apocalyptic novels begin and end with the dissolution of civilization, The Stand tackles the onerous process of re-establishing one. In many ways, some surprising, this proves an equal challenge to taking on a minion of Satan.
Although I’ve read many Stephen King books, I’m missing some of the biggies—Shawshank, Green Mile, Shining—and so am probably not in a place to declare The Stand the best or worst of anything. Not that I would have anyway. The novel is great, compelling and rich and at turns so absorbing that I may or may not have sailed right past my subway stop. But it’s not serious enough to be King’s best drama, or gripping enough to be his best thriller. It’s just a hunk of classic King goodness, all juicy and tantalizing and staring at you from within your tote bag while you try to focus on productive things like “doing the dishes” or “feeding the cats.” And this, ultimately, is the power of King—he could scribble a few ramblings on the back of a napkin and I’d not only read it, but be so engrossed that I run head-first into a pole. That, my friends, is good fiction.
TITLE: The Stand
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: Kindled (though 1,200-1,500 in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: I mean….
SORTA LIKE: Under the Dome meets Dark Tower
FIRST LINE: “‘Sally.’ A mutter. ‘Wake up now, Sally.’ A louder mutter: leeme lone. He shook her harder. ‘Wake up. You got to wake up!’ Charlie. Charlie’s voice. Calling her. For how long? Sally swam up out of sleep.”